Penang – A Sustainable Transport Primer for a Battle of Ideas

Penang traffic - no sign of public transport


In the coming weeks we are going to be presenting here coverage of a highly interesting public discussion of differences of perspectives, values and finally of interests, which have at its core the same concerns of World Streets and our readers: namely the challenges of sustainable development, sustainable transportation and the context of the politics of transport in cities.

But let’s not try to get into the interesting details and ongoing work in this first editorial; instead let’s see if we can present a quick canned history of this small South East Asian city that is facing some hard choices that are important for the immediate future but also for the long term. There is a lot of passion surrounding these issues and differences, so in this we shall do our best to maintain what our friends over at Wikipedia so deftly call, NPOV – a neutral point of view.

So to set the stage, here is a first “primer” to introduce the background again which all this action is playing out, a basic primer on Penang for thoee of our readers who do not know all that much about what they call the Pearl of the Orient (and may it ever be so!). The following text extracted and shortened in this cases directly and with no shame from the pages of the Wikipedia entry on Penang (

Enough to help you understand the rest.


I. Penang – A Primer

II. Transportation infrastructure introductory overview

III. Non-governmental organizations

IV.  Competences and Deficits

V. Useful References

VI. Earlier work in field of sustainable transport strategies and planning

I. Penang – A Primer *

Penang skyline evening

Penang is a state of Malaysia located on the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, by the Strait of Malacca. It comprises two parts – Penang Island, where the capital city, George Town, is located, and Seberang Perai on the Malay Peninsula.

Highly urbanized and industrialized, Penang is one of the most developed and economically important states in the country, as well as a thriving tourist destination. George Town, which was founded by the British in 1786, is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Penang has the third-highest Human Development Index in Malaysia. Its heterogeneous population is highly diverse in ethnicity, culture, language and religion.

Penang is a geographically divided into two sections:

  • Penang Island (Pulau Pinang in Malay): an island of 293 km2(113 sq. mi) located in the Straits of Malacca;
  • Seberang Perai: a narrow hinterland of 653 km2(252 sq. mi) on the peninsula across a narrow channel whose smallest width is 4 km (2.5 mi).

The body of water between Penang Island and Seberang Perai consists of the North Channel to the north of George Town and the South Channel to the south of it. Penang Island is irregularly shaped, with a granitic, hilly and mostly forested interior. The coastal plains are narrow, the most extensive of which is in the northeast.

Like the rest of Malaysia, Penang has a tropical climate, specifically a tropical rainforest climate bordering on a tropical monsoon climate, though Penang does experience slightly drier conditions from December to February of the following year. The climate is very much dictated by the surrounding sea and the wind system.

India Pune traffic jam - for header

Greater Penang (conurbation of George Town)

The National Physical Plan of Malaysia envisages a Conurbation of George Town encompassing George Town and surrounding areas. The greater metropolitan area of Penang consists of highly urbanized Penang Island, Seberang Prai, Sungai Petani, Kulim and the surrounding areas.

The population of Penang is 1,663,000 as of 2015

  • Penang Island has a population of 704,376 in 2010 and a density of 2,372 people per square kilometer.
  • Seberang Peraiis the hinterland portion of Penang, populated by 815,767 people in the 2010.

The ethnic composition in 2015 was:

  • Bumiputra(Malays and others): 42.1%
  • Chinese: 41.4%
  • Indian: 10%
  • Others: 6.5%

Penang hosts an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 of migrant workers, mostly from Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, and South Asian nations who are mostly involved in domestic help, services, manufacturing, construction, plantations, and agriculture.

The common languages of Penang, depending on social classes, social circles, and ethnic backgrounds are Malay, Mandarin, English, Penang Hokkien and Tamil.

The state has its own state legislature and executive, but they have relatively limited powers in comparison with those of the Malaysian federal government, chiefly in areas of revenues and taxation.

The architecture of Penang is a durable testament of her history – a culmination of over a century and a half of British presence, as well as the confluence of immigrants and the culture they brought with them

penang Gorge Town women walking 1

Penang has always been a popular tourist destination, both domestically and internationally. In 2009, Penang attracted 5.96 million tourists, ranking third in tourist arrivals in Malaysia.Penang is known for its rich heritage, multicultural society and its vibrant culture, its hills, parks, and beaches, shopping, and good food. There are a variety of accommodation options from guest houses and budget hotels to four- and five-star hotels.

Despite its limited land size and dense population, Penang has managed to retain a considerable area of natural environment. As of 2011, 7% of the state’s total surface area or 7524 hectares was forested


II. Transportation infrastructure overview

Penang map

Getting to Penang both from within and outside Malaysia is easy as Penang is well-connected by road, rail, sea and air. Flights are available from Kuala Lumpur to Penang by local and regional carriers.

Penang Island is connected to the mainland by two bridges. The first one is the 13.5 km (8.4 mi), three-lane, dual carriageway Penang Bridge, which was completed in 1985. The Second Penang Bridge is located further south, linking Batu Maung on the southeastern part of the island to Batu Kawan on the mainland. It was opened to the public in early 2014 and is currently the longest bridge in Southeast Asia.

The North-South Expressway (Lebuhraya Utara-Selatan), a 966-km long expressway which traverses the western part of Peninsular Malaysia linking major cities and towns, passes through Seberang Perai. After exiting either one of both bridges, commuters can directly use the expressway to get to the rest of Peninsular Malaysia.

The Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway formerly known as the Jelutong Expressway, a coastal highway on the eastern part of the island, links the Penang Bridge to George Town. The Butterworth Outer Ring Road (BORR) is a 14-km tolled expressway that serves primarily Butterworth and Bukit Mertajam to ameliorate the upsurge in vehicular traffic due to intense urban and industrial development

malaysia Penang big  traffic jam on highway

III.Non-governmental organizations

Penang Forum Meeting small

Penang is one of the hotbeds of social activism in the country. Anwar Fazal, one of the world’s leading social advocate, together with several individuals, founded the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) in 1969.

The country’s most vocal and active consumer protection group, CAP strives to protect the interests of consumers. It publishes the Utusan KonsumerUtusan PenggunaUtusan CinaUtusan Tamil, and Majalah Pengguna Kanak-kanak. It established the Third World Network (TWN) in 1984 to connect NGOs in developing countries. The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action is an organisation based in Penang whose objectives are to protect, promote and support breastfeeding globally.

The Penang Heritage Trust is an NGO whose objective is to promote the conservation of Penang’s heritage, and to foster cultural education about the history and heritage of Penang. PHT worked to enlist the historic enclave of George Town as a World Heritage Site and had played an important role in saving many heritage buildings in Penang from demolition.

Friends of the Penang Botanic Gardens Society is a voluntary organisation dedicated to supporting the botanic, horticultural, educational and recreational objectives of thePenang Botanic Gardens.

The Penang Institute (formerly the Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute) is a non-profit Penang-based think tank and research institute with a focus on facilitating dynamic and sustainable development for Penang. It publishes the Penang Economic Monthly.

Civil Society in Penang

Independent organizations, NGOs

Government agencies, including groups relying largely on government finance

Local Blogs


 Malaysia Penang Pedestrian in King crosswalk


# # # 

IV. Competences in Transport Analysis and Planning

The present government’s knowledge base starts with a firm orientation in terms of politics, finance, banking, accounting, land deals, Chinese mainland financial and industrial business connections – not sustainable development or technical transport analysis or planning competences.

The transportation skill base of the government lies in the maintenance, cleaning, policing,  specific improvements of roads  and existing transport infrastructure, in addition to overseeing and coordinating the activities of a range of contractors and service providers. This is normal for a smaller city, but nonetheless leaves a considerable gap when it comes to the kinds of technical transport analysis and planning skills which are at the core of a fully developed transport master plan.

In this section of the Primer, we shift gears to comment on the important deficit of technical competence on the part of the present government team and their consultants. You will be hearing more on this as this series moves on, but here in a few short paragraphs  is the editor’s personal analysis by way of introductory background. But more important than these views is all that you can gain for yourself as you read and evaluate the other articles and references in this series.

  1. Halcrow is a competent international consultancy with recognized international credentials and a long track record in the field of transportation analysis, forecasting, modeling, simulation, testing, hands-on knowledge of leading edge experience in all the key concerned areas, traffic and parking strategies, public and shared transport, freight and goods delivery, civil and traffic engineering, economic instruments for regulating traffic and parking, legislation and enforcement, participatory planning and review, planning and public policy, including in-depth familiarity with practices and experience in leading edge cities in these and allied fields of zoning, pedestrianization, public spaces and city cycling.
  1. The State and local government in Penang have no record of experience or competence in the following critical technical areas: transportation analysis, forecasting, modeling, simulation, testing, traffic and parking strategies, public and shared transport, freight and goods delivery, civil and traffic engineering, economic instruments for regulating traffic and parking, legislation and enforcement, participatory planning and review, planning and public policy, including in-depth familiarity with practices and experience in leading edge cities in the allied fields of pedestrianization, public spaces and city cycling.
  1. The State’s chosen consultancy group, led by SRS: have no verifiable record of experience or competence in the following critical technical areas: transportation analysis, forecasting, modeling, simulation, testing, traffic and parking strategies, public and shared transport, freight and goods delivery, economic instruments for regulating traffic and parking, legislation and enforcement, participatory planning and review, planning and public policy, including in-depth familiarity with practices and experience in leading edge cities in the allied fields of city planning, pedestrianization, public spaces, motorized two-wheelers, and city cycling.

We take note that the Halcrow reports were very clear on this matter of a critical competence deficit in 2012. Today, four years later it is little changed.

# # #

V. Useful References

This set of references in support of the Sustainable Penang/New Mobility project, and in particular the component involving civil society participation in determining the future of Penang’s transport/mobility system, has been carefully pieced together over the last two years, in response to a system on the part of the government that was providing little information to support citizen enquiries into the program which is also referred to by them as the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP).

* The latest information on the government program in support of this will be found at


Sustainable Penang/Shared Transport Library –

  1. Halcrow reports library  –  (13 items)
  2. EcoPlan reports – (13 items)
  3. Useful references –  (61 items)
  4. Future visions of Penang – (11 items)
  5. S/P Open Forum archives – (7 items)
  6. Sustainable Penang Classics – (15 items)


Individual Halcrow Reports

  1. 2013 Transport Master Plan –
  2. Highway Plan (May 2013) –
  3. Institutional Plan (April 2013) –
  4. Overarching Strategy –
  5. Overview of existing conditions –
  6. Penang Accessibility Plan –
  7. Pubic consultation report –
  8. Public Transport Plan report –
  9. Recommended Transport Master Plan Strategy –
  10. Survey report (2011) –
  11. Water Transport report –

State Government Documentation

  1. Penang State Transport Master Plan –
  2. PTMP: Government’s response to NGO Statement –
  3. SRS documentation – Promised and to be posted as soon as we have it.

Key Sustainable Penang/New Mobility References

Penang BCF gent on bike beautiful

# # #

About the author:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

View complete profile


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s